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Death and society

Updated Tuesday 29th September 2009

Richard Wilson interviews Glennys Howarth about her research into how attitudes towards death changed in British Society during the course of the twentieth century

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Richard Wilson interviews Professor Glennys Howarth, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. They talk about how people’s views of death have changed, from Victorian times to the present day, in the atmospheric surroundings of the historic Dennis Severs House.

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Richard Wilson: Glennys, you’re a sociologist, yes?

Glennys Howarth: I am, yes.

Richard Wilson: And you’ve made a bit of a study about death?

Glennys Howarth: Well I’ve been working for about the last twenty years – I wouldn’t like to tell you how many – looking at all sorts of different aspects of death, dying and bereavement but in the context of society, so not medical, necessarily,

Richard Wilson: No.

Glennys Howarth: but looking at how as a society we deal with death, how we deal with dying, how we deal with bereavement.

Richard Wilson: When you say "society", do you mean our society as British society, or is it, does it cover all religions, does it cover other countries, or?

Glennys Howarth: I try to look cross-culturally.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: And different – I mean when you say "British society" it’s always difficult to define what that actually is.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: So, in terms of British society you’ve got a lot of different ethnic groups, you’ve got lots of religions, and of course, increasingly people who have no religion.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: So you have that.

Richard Wilson: So, first of all, can I ask you what led you to this study?

Glennys Howarth: It’s difficult, you can always look back and say sort of, look back and sort of find the route that led you where you’ve now arrived - if you’ve arrived.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: I was interested, very interested in the First World War and, many many years ago, and having had a number of bereavements when I was very young of people very close to me, it made me wonder how people actually dealt with death and bereavement, because I found - again this was many, many years ago - that people found it difficult to talk to me.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: They didn’t know what to say, which I think is a very common experience. And then, as I say, I got very interested in the First World War and I wondered how on earth people dealt with that on a sort of mass scale.

Richard Wilson: Hmm. Hmm.

Glennys Howarth: And then the difference between the death that was happening, you know, the killing that was happening on the war front and the people at home who really had no idea and couldn’t relate to the sort of, the experiences that people were having at the front. So how that actually impacted on bereavement as well.

Richard Wilson: So, looking at the First World War when there was so much death around, was there a change after that in the way we dealt with death? Was there some sort of closure of some sort?

Glennys Howarth: Well I think there was a lot of, there was a lot of angst following the First World War because up until - if you look at the Victorian period, the Victorian period was a sort of celebration of death. There was high mortality rates and very extravagant funerals and funeral rituals.

Richard Wilson: Hmm.

Glennys Howarth: And so when somebody died - I’m talking mainly about people with money, people dying in poverty had an entirely different experience - but people who could afford it would have a very extravagant funeral with the - and you’ve seen them in the Dickens films, you know - the funeral directors with the death mutes and the horse drawn hearse with the plumes

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: and all those beautiful sort of additional elements to the ritual. And so the funeral ritual was very important when somebody died and, of course, what happened during the First World War was you had all those young men being killed on the battle fronts …

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: … many of whom you couldn’t even recover their bodies, let alone bring them home for a decent funeral. So that caused a lot of angst I think, the not being able to do the right thing for the young men who’d died.

Richard Wilson: Hmm.

Glennys Howarth: And so the inter-war period, following the First World War, you had a lot of, there had always been quite a large spiritualist movement but after the First World War you saw a real surge in spiritualism and people consulting mediums in order to be able to contact the dead from the War.

Richard Wilson: Right.

Glennys Howarth: So that inter-war period was very much – there’s a historian, David Calladine, who you’ve probably heard of, who talks of that period as a period of obsession with death. And I think it was after the Second World War that that started to change.

Richard Wilson: Right. It’s interesting you talking about the First World War and how there was so much death, family after family, and of course the people, the soldiers in a sense didn’t talk about their experiences very much, so that must have been doubly difficult for them to deal with.

Glennys Howarth: Hmm.

Richard Wilson: What was this, what was the change after that between the Wars, did that all sort of settle down in a way, the attitude to death?

Glennys Howarth: Well I think between the Wars there was this obsession around death where the families were, not having had the opportunity to say goodbye, had really attempted to communicate. The orthodox or, you know, the established church, you know, Christian church really frowned upon the idea of people trying to communicate across the life/death divide.

Richard Wilson: Oh course, yes.

Glennys Howarth: Ever since, well since we lost the idea of purgatory in the Protestant faith …

Richard Wilson: Hmm.

Glennys Howarth: And so, during that inter-War period, there was no way that the church or established religion could help people to deal with that huge loss and so the spiritualist church, and of course there were lots of mediums around both supposedly authentic and then the fakes who were only too happy to help people with that communication.

Richard Wilson: Hmm, yes.

Glennys Howarth: And so you had this almost obsession with death during the inter-War years, and then of course the Second World War came along.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: And the Second World War was quite different in that it wasn’t just sort of the men going off to fight the war in a foreign land, but actually people being killed in huge numbers at home as well. And so the War had probably as much impact on people back at home as it did on the soldiers, and I think that after the … by the time you get to the end of the Second World War, people are absolutely sick of death.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: They don’t particularly want to talk about it, they want to get on with life. Society starts to become a little bit more affluent and people start to look ahead to having a bit more money and not having to think about death.

Richard Wilson: Right.

Glennys Howarth: Apart from wars, the mortality rate is reduced as well and so there’s an opportunity not to have it there as such an important part of your life.

Richard Wilson: So would you say that there is, exists a sort of taboo about talking about death?

Glennys Howarth: Hmm, that’s an interesting question, something we academics argue about all the time. [Laughter]. I think there probably used to be but I don’t think there is any more.

Richard Wilson: So why did we start to become afraid of bodies?

Glennys Howarth: I think that probably changed when dying stopped happening in the home, and also when people stopped caring for the body at home. During the Victorian period, again as we were discussing before, most people would die at home, the body would be cared for, either the neighbourhood layer-out, who would be a woman, or the family, usually the female in the family would wash the body and prepare it and so on for the neighbours and family to come and view. After the Second World War that started to change. The undertakers started to provide chapels of rest for the body, probably in the 1930s, 20s and 30s the early ones, but not on a very large scale until after the Second World War. It was also the period where more people would use hospitals, so when they were very ill and dying that sort of post-Second World War there was an increase in the number of people who would actually go into hospital. So hospitals became a place, and the institutions generally became a place, where people would die. Funeral directors, chapels of rest became places where people would then leave the body.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: And it’s also worth remembering that this was also a period when the women who would normally have done, you know, would have been involved in all that sort of work were in the labour market, so they’re just not there at home any more able to look after the dying person, able to look after the body.

Richard Wilson: Yes, yes.

Glennys Howarth: And so it was all those sorts of social changes I guess which also impacted on it.

Richard Wilson: Yes.

Glennys Howarth: I have a colleague who’s a funeral director who also tells me that it was the invention of the through lounge that stopped people from keeping the bodies at home.

Richard Wilson: The through lounge, yes. That’s an interesting anthropological fact.

Glennys Howarth: Yes.

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